On Blood-Tags and White-Washing
Up here in Boston, just days ahead of July 4th, someone hit Christopher Columbus with a big bucket of blood.
Or what looked like blood.
Local media stations were all over the story. But no one on TV would say the word.
Paint, said reporter after reporter, Paint.
Not paint made to look like blood. Not blood-colored paint. Just paint. Someone had poured paint on the "historic" marble statue of Christopher Columbus. A senseless act of vandalism.
Why would anyone do such a thing? What sort of hoodlums would show such disregard for public property?
The tagging of the statue may not have made TV at all if not for the signature that anchored the act: “Black Lives Matter,” spray painted in black across the base of the monument. Thus our stunned and incredulous local TV coverage had to ask:
What on earth could this random paint-smearing of a statue of Columbus have to do with the #BlackLivesMatter movement?
The selected Boston passersby stopped for interview (all apparently white) hadn’t a clue. Seeing only paint and not blood, the live-action reporters only added to the confusion.
Why couldn’t the TV reporters say “blood”? How, in the year 2015, is even the briefest media mention of this widely known history still taboo?
Here, for review, is how Bartolome de las Casas depicted the practices that Columbus and company helped to establish in the so-called “New World”:
There are two main ways in which those who have travelled to this part of the world pretending to be Christians have uprooted these pitiful peoples and wiped them from the face of the earth. First, they have waged war on them: unjust, cruel, bloody and tyrannical war. Second, they have murdered anyone and everyone who has shown the slightest sign of resistance, or even of wishing to escape the torment to which they have subjected him.
This latter policy has been instrumental in suppressing the native leaders, and, indeed, given that the Spaniards normally spare only women and children, it has led to the annihilation of all adult males, whom they habitually subject to the harshest and most iniquitous and brutal slavery that man has ever devised for his fellow-men, treating them, in fact, worse than animals. All the many and infinitely varied ways that have been devised for oppressing these peoples can be seen to flow from one or other of these two diabolical and tyrannical policies.
And here is how Boston’s late great people’s historian Howard Zinn summarized Columbus’ own role in the process:
…from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were "naked as the day they were born," they showed "no more embarrassment than animals." Columbus later wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.
But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. (Zinn, Chapter 1, A People’s History of the United States)
Such is the history one must engage, once one admits that there is history here at all.
Once one does, it becomes all too clear what the guerrilla graffiti act was attacking…namely the racist, genocidal character of a culture that can continue to maintain statues and name parks for notorious enslavers, conquerors, and butchers of (non-white) human beings. A culture that continues to justify and even celebrate state authorities that subjugate human beings and kill them brutally when they resist.
Taking the cue from incredulous reporters, many online comments evaded the political message of the blood-paint completely, focusing on form to avoid content, focusing on the of paint to avoid the blood. “I don’t care what your views are,” says this view, “hold a demonstration, fine. But it’s never ok to deface public property.
Such an ostensibly “non-political” argument is in fact deeply political, and deeply problematic.
For one, it misses the fact that, increasingly, peaceful protests—even sizable ones—are systematically ignored by the mass media, unless they disrupt or disturb the normal flow and appearance of public space. When dominant media ignore even massive protests, prohibitions on public disruption become effectively prohibitions on sparking public debate altogether.
Similarly ignored is the fact that erecting and maintaining such public monuments to slave-takers and indian-killers in the first place consumes many times the public resources any lone act of graffiti ever could. Like those who blamed Occupy activists for costing tax-payers extra hours of police overtime, such ‘critics’ strain at the gnat of resistance only to swallow a camel of ruling class domination.
More crucially, however, such indignant responses ignore the possibility that certain forms of public property themselves amount to a kind of defacement… of our collective humanity.
In his opening chapter of A People’s History of the United States, Zinn wrote that “To emphasize, the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves- unwittingly-to justify what was done.” Nor are such matters merely a matter of historical accuracy or respecting past. As Zinn continued, “My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress …that is still with us.”
What is #BlackLivesMatter but a massive and evolving challenge to just such “easy acceptance of atrocities,” from police violence to mass incarceration to other forms of racist oppression and super-exploitation?
What does a statue glorifying Columbus have to do with #BLM?
Thankfully, many other Bostonians, despite the inept and complicit mass media, were able to read the guerrilla graffiti action loud and clear.
* * *
In recent weeks, in the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina church massacre, it has suddenly become a mainstream demand to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings and other public places in the South. Perhaps it’s now time to raise the demand that public monuments to Christopher Columbus and other colonizer-enslavers should similarly be removed?
How many streets, parks, paths, city squares, government buildings, or public landmarks today implicitly condone, whitewash, or glorify one or another form or figure or slave-taking, land-stealing, colonialism, or genocide? How many of those historic figures who suffered and struggled against conquest and slavery still go without the slightest monument at all?
On second thought, perhaps the more effective radical demand would not be to remove the current monuments to Columbus and company, but merely to remove the whitewash from them. That is, to force into view the history—the social effects, the interests served, the suffering caused—that such public monuments work to hide.
Too often the PC “solution” to the history of oppression is to suppress the external signs and expressions associated with it, in a kind of liberal version of the corporate media’s suppression of the word blood from public discourse. Perhaps it would be better to keep the signs and symbols of oppression visible, right where they are, but radically reframed—and repainted!—to make it impossible to think of them shorn of the stain of suffering.
The point after all is not merely to end oppressive speech, but the oppressive (and exploitative) system itself, which is a matter of existing social conditions and institutions, of power, policies, and practices. The goal would be not to purify our public space of the taint of racism, colonialism, or genocide, but to provoke people to see and to discuss this taint, and its meaning for us today. For the bloodstains of course are not just on the statues, but all around us, built into the beams of the buildings and the billionaire bank accounts that rule this society.
Or perhaps it is time that we knocked down that Christopher Columbus statue altogether, and replaced it with one for Boston historian Howard Zinn himself. We could transform Columbus Park into a People’s History Park, one devoted to honoring the struggles that this local activist and author did so much to uphold, and to popularize.
Short of that, these historic words from Columbus’ own log-book, words which open A People’s History, should be etched permanently to the foot of the monument: They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned...They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features....They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane...They would make fine servants....With fifty men we couldsubjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
Until such a time as our public monuments reflect this critical history, it remains open season on Columbus Park and on white-washed history sites across America.
Joe Ramsey is a teacher, writer, and activist residing in the Boston area. He is co-editor of the journal Cultural Logic as well as a contributing board member to Socialism and Democracy and a regular contributor to Red Wedge Magazine, where this essay first appeared.